Monday, December 5, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "It's Love" (on Bernstein's Wonderful Town)

it’s love
by Douglas Messerli

Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov (book, based upon their play My Sister Eilleen, based on the stories by Ruth McKenney), Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics), Leonard Bernstein (music) / produced by LAOpera, conducted by Grant Gershon / the performance Howard and I saw was December 4, 2016, a matinee performance

In preparation for the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, California and Los Angeles is, as Los Angeles Times music critic, Mark Swed noted, way ahead of the curve. Last summer Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony in a semi-staged version of On the Town, and more recently, Gustavo Dudamel performed a version of Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Hollywood Bowl. I saw neither of these highly praised productions. But yesterday my husband Howard and I did attend a glorious semi-staged production, conducted by the Los Angeles Chorale director, Grant Gershon, of Wonderful Town.

I saw a full Broadway revival of this sweet-toothed musical in 2004, and wrote about it, along with other Bernstein works, in My Year 2004, so I won’t retell the full story of the two
Ohio sisters’—based on Ruth and Eileen McKenney (the latter of whom, strangely enough, eventually married American satirist Nathanael West)—attempts to conquer New York. Let’s just say that their antics end in Eileen winning the heart of nearly every heterosexual male she meets in Greenwich Village, and the less attractive Ruth, winning the hearts of an entire fleet of the Brazilian navy and the love of one man, magazine editor, Robert Baker (Marc Kudisch). If the rest of the musical is pretty simplistic, so be it. With Bernstein music and witty lyrics by Adolph Comden and Betty Green, who cares that the work remains rather a lightweight piece?
       There’s always a problem, or at least a fear, when I hear that an opera company is going to produce a work of light-opera and dialogue such as this musical. Although opera performers are becoming, over the years, increasingly versatile, I still recall wonderful singers such as Leontyne Price stiffly singing “Tis a gift to be simple” and other such painful incursions of great opera singers such as Luciano Pavorotti trying to make his way through a song from Cats. Fortunately, under Gershon’s talented hand, the LAOpera turned, this time, to mostly Broadway veterans, such as the comically brilliant singer/actor Faith Prince as Ruth Sherwood,  the young Nikki M. James for her sister Eileen (who, apparently, is an even better dancer than she is a charming singer), Roger Bart, playing numerous roles, a wonderful character actor, and the strong-voiced baritone, Kudisch, who did nicely by his role. 
       These singers stood at music stands on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, backed by a large contingent of what I presume are the LAOpera orchestra members. If in a few moments, the tempo seemed a little sluggish, overall its was brightly played, with even director Gershon getting in on the jolly Irish jig of “My Darlin’ Eileen,” which demonstrates the attraction of Eileen to the entire police force of the local Greenwich Village station after the two sisters get into trouble by dancing the resplendent “Conga” through the local streets.
        How could you not love a musical whose very second song—after a tourist like trip through the village, helped along in this production with 1950s-like cinematic projections by Hana S. Kim—is the wailing “Ohio.” If Prince doesn’t quite have the heft of a Rosalind Russell, who makes the song sound a bit like a combination the mooing cows and mewling cats of the character’s home state Prince does a perfectly credible job. And she finds her comic stride in the hilarious “One Hundred Easy Ways (to Lose a Man),” a song almost as perfect for her many theatrical talents revealed in Guys and Dolls’ “Adelaide’s Lament,” a Broadway moment that I will never forget.


      Eileen gets her chance to sing out in “A Little Bit of Love,” in which she reveals her admiration for the gentle soda jerk Frank Lippencott, while soon after switching her mind to the next man she meets. She gets her chance to reveal her dancing talents in “Conga,” not only, along with nearly everyone in this cast, leading off a trail of conga lovers, but ending it in a series of lifted cartwheels without hardly losing her breath, let alone getting as dizzy as those movements made me, sitting in the audience.
       And, yes, I have heard more spirited versions of the musical’s final “Wrong Note Rag,” in which Bernstein almost painfully blasts our ears with continued off-key combinations of music—both Russell’s recorded versions and the Broadway revival of 2004 did this better—but Prince, James, and the marvelous LAOpera chorus members still got through it quite nicely. Even the “Wreck” (Ben Crawford) gave us a nice rendition of “Pass the Football.”
       The final Conga performed by the entire cast as they exited out the audience doorways, absolutely delighted this large audience, which gave everyone a standing performance. If not the greatest gift to Broadway theater (after all, both On the Town and West Side Story are far greater musicals), it pleases, and in a production such as this one, with only 3 performances, who can find a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon?

Los Angeles, December 5, 2016

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "The Believers and Those Who Have Lost Faith (on George Furth's and Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along)

the believers and those who have lost faith
by Douglas Messerli

George Furth (book, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart), Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) / 1981 / the versions I saw were from 2010, at Crossley Terrace Theatre at the First Presbyterian Church in Hollywood and the production on Saturday, November 27, 2016 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts/Bram Goldsmith Theater

Howard and I first saw Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical, revised from a version of Off-Broadway in 1994, at the Crossley Terrace Theatre at the First Presbyterian Church in  Hollywood in 2010. I remember it as a very pleasant amateur production with a small, somewhat difficult-to-hear combo playing from off stage. One of the local Los Angeles reviewers, Philip Brandes, described it as “Making the most of modest resources, a heartfelt, committed revival from Actors Co-op,” which “shows why this under-appreciated Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical has steadily risen in stature since its initial commercial failure….” Other local reviewers equally praised it.
        Inexplicably, Howard does not recall our attending it, but I remember several of its excellent songs, including “Not a Day Goes By” and the musical’s final number which—since the play moves backward from 1976-1957—is actually the first sentiments of the work’s three major characters, a lovely song of the belief in their futures, “Our Time,” which expresses the hopes of every generation, this witnessing the New York flyby of the Russian satellite, Sputnik.  “Old Friends,” the funny-angry song “Franklin Shepard, Inc,” “It’s a Hit,” and “Good Thing Going” were also among the musical’s high points. But I also recall that both Howard and I were startled by a work, based on a 1934 play by the famed writing team of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, which expressed such clear cynicism. Probably because I had already spoken, in several pieces of Sondheim’s dark cynicism in other works, I chose not to review the piece that year. And, “as the days go by,” I’m happy now that I didn’t comment on it in the 2010 volume.
     For now—having just come away from the wonderfully produced and marvelously acted and sung version, directed by Michael Arden for the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills—I realize just how wonderfully theatrical Sondheim’s and Furth’s musical is, despite the cynicism it expressed for its lead character Franklin Shepard (Aaron Lazar), who falls into the spider’s web of singer-lover Gussie Carnegie (Saycon Sengbloh), that the other central figures had, in fact, retained their faith in the future, even if, in the very first scene, Franklin’s friend Mary Flynn (Donna Vivino)—who gets incredibly drunk at the Hollywood party to celebrate the clearly mediocre movie he has just produced—so berates his hangers-on that she will never again be allowed to be in Franklin’s presence, just as his other “old friend,” Charley Kringas (the truly marvelous Wayne Brady) has previously been banned. By the end of this first scene, the last in the musical’s chronology, Franklin, having now been abandoned by his second wife, Gussie, is left alone with no one but himself to help him understand how seriously he has fucked up his life.
      Over the course of 20 years of particular scenes—in the musical’s backward scenario, from 1976. 1973, 1968, 1966, 1964, 1960, 1959, and 1957—we watch the gradual devolution of Frank from a dreamer about creating serious music (the only thing he’s really good at) to a  man who cheats on his first wife, Beth, and later his second wife, Gussie, and is willing to give up almost all of his formerly challenging concepts for mediocre projects that produce money but offer little intellectual or spiritual challenges. Those who most loved him, one by one, are forced to admit his hollow core, and do so in quite painful terms, particularly in Charley’s on-TV interview—in another highly embarrassing moment for Franklin—“Franklin Shepard, Inc,”—and, after the first scene breakdown, in Mary’s own rendition of “Not a Day Goes By” (sung oddly enough—while making it utterly apparent that Mary has perhaps a deeper love for him that his fiancĂ©e—as a trio between Franklin and his new wife, Beth). In almost every step along the way, Franklin, because of his selfishness, inner greed, and lack of true feeling, makes the wrong decisions—winding up with all the praise of his fawning “blob” mob peers and lots of money, but with no self-respect; while the formerly diminished Charley, whose last name their first producer, Joe Josephson  (Amir Talai) cannot even remember, receives a Pulitzer Prize for his plays—the writer’s not very believable symbol for true recognition of talent; and, even if she can no longer write, Mary had, at least, a best-selling novel—equally non-convincing, but again a symbol for the audience to perceive that she has talent. In short, for all Franklin’s financial success, by play’s end (represented in the work’s beginning) he has very little to show for all of his wonderful dreams, for which everyone previously loved him.
       To stitch all of these various “scenes” together, Sondheim—always a genius with ensemble pieces—creates a series of “transitions” with songs such as the title work, “Merrily We Roll Along” and the “Blob” songs, as well as numerous repetitions and reprises. Today, particularly, in a grandly produced production such as this one, with full sets (a maybe overly-busy representation of numerous bulb-lit actor’s mirrors and larger mirrors which reiterate both the theater world and the self-consciousness involved with those portrayed) and a wide range of believable costumes (both by Dane Laffrey) I finally realized just how innovative Sondheim’s musical was in 1981, when it bombed after 16 performances (more about that below). As director Arden wrote in the program: “

        I think they [Sondheim and Furth] wrote this musical a little before 
        its time because I can’t imagine anyone having a hard time following
        it now. If anything, Merrily provides us an opportunity for reflection.

        I have a history of tearing up whenever I see what I might describe as a near-perfect musical. The great acting and singing of these actors, particularly given the various trajectories in which the plot took them from their earliest dreams and imaginations, left me with very few moments of dry eyes, and sometimes, embarrassingly—but I still proudly admit—I even had to control an occasional sob. As I’ve often written, when it comes to the American musical, I am a true sentimentalist—particularly when comes to any musical from 1940-1960, and any Sondheim musical after.
        And this time round, Merrily We Roll Along seemed not simply cynical, but a story of moral precaution. One can chose, with careful thinking and emotional response, which way to go; and, particularly with the collaboration of friends, one can devote one’s life to the more complex and difficult, instead of giving into the demands of those who find that music and art have to be “hummable” and simply popular in order to, as Gussie puts it, “get what you want.” The continued “question” of ensemble members, “how did I get here?” is absolutely made clear in Sondheim’s and Furth’s lucid work. Whether or not Franklin will be ever able to perceive that answer is open to question, but by the time the musical finishes, revealing his former glorious belief in his own generation, we no longer care, for he has desperately failed to live up to his own dreaming.

Los Angeles, November 27, 2016